Is There An ‘I’ In Team?

Many popular phrases have their roots in sports. For example, the cliché “there is no ‘i’ in team” comes from the idea a cohesive team of players is more likely to win games than a collection of individual superstars. Players are told to focus on the team’s overall success rather than their individual performance. The corollary to this idea is that stars who are high maintenance cause unrest in locker rooms which, in turn, causes poor performance in games.

Neither of these ideas is necessarily true in sports or in business. In a book titled There Is an I in Team, Cambridge Business School Professor Mark de Rond explores a variety of research studies and comes to the conclusion that a focus on interpersonal harmony can actually hurt team performance. Talented team members self-censor their contributions to keep the peace. In fact, the book quotes a Harvard study which found that “grumpy orchestras played […] better than orchestras in which all the musicians were quite happy”.

The book examines why it’s so hard to get teams to realize their potential and how to enable individuals to work more effectively on teams. Here’s Prof de Rond summarizing his findings:

According to another Harvard study cited in the book, creating a team of overachievers is not necessarily the best way to maximize performance.  The study of sell-side equity analysts found overall performance started to suffer when the percentage of stars rose above a certain level. “Don’t overspend to recruit high-status employees,” concludes this research; “stars work best in a supportive network of competent performers.”

All of this reminds me that comparisons between sports and businesses can be tricky. I’m sure it’s difficult for sports managers to figure out the optimal mix of stars and team players but at least the goals are clear and the team members’ results are easy to measure. In business, the goals are many and individual contribution tough to prove.

Whether you believe in stars or teams, my advice is to pay attention to the outcomes. As Michael Jordan famously once said, there may be no letter ‘i’ in the word team but there is an ‘i’ in win.

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7 Responses to Is There An ‘I’ In Team?

  1. Alex Hagan May 5, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

    The sports analogy rings true too. In Moneyball, how did the Oakland A’s become competitive with 1/3rd of the budget of the Yankees? They used workforce analytics including regression analysis to figure out what they really needed, and stopped hiring superstars.

  2. John Williams May 5, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    Bad article and Michael Jordan sure couldn’t win in baseball and with out pippen, rodman, grant, Armstrong, enough said look at tiger woods the best he ever was as individual was because he had the best support carrying his clubs around….

    • Jonathan May 5, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

      John, I appreciate your comment but I didn’t recommend stars or teams

  3. Robert E May 6, 2013 at 6:04 am #

    You have to bring your “I” to the team, self-initiative is just that; Your own passions and production move the team forward. Of course, when measurements and rewards favor individual contributions, it undermines team effort.
    The difficult balance in business is keeping everyone focused on the team goals while still noticing, encouraging, and compensating individual effort.
    Yes, an inherent contradiction, though my experience has been that everyone tries to create axioms when life, itself, is full of paradox.
    …”it is contradiction that makes us productive” to quote Goethe.

  4. Clark J. May 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    An interesting discussion and sounds like an interesting read. I participated in sports growing up and spend a lot of time coaching youth now. I enjoy the parallels to business. I was interested watching the expectations of the sports world when Lebron James joined the Heat. In his first year with the high expectations to win his first title, a less-talented Dallas Mavs team defeated the much more talent-enriched Miami Heat team in the play-offs. From my observations, Dallas had greater team leadership experience, team chemistry, and stronger role players. Their “I” player, Dirk Nowitzki, also knew when it was time to step up and finish or “win” the game. I believe in sports as well as business, there needs to be an ebb and flow to role playing. A time for teaching and mentoring the new talent as well as a time to put the pedal to the floor and drive to the finish with the leaders and more talented players.

  5. todbizz June 2, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    Reblogged this on todbizz and commented:
    Tbooughts to ponder.

  6. Jeffrey Summers August 3, 2017 at 12:02 pm #

    Except most “teams” in business, really aren’t teams at all but simply a group of individuals with common goals. The problem is when business managers try to overlay a team dynamic and expect that to achieve some magical outcome.

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